Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Paul Merton's Secret Stations

I don't know why I have this pull towards programmes about trains. My railway obsessed brother would argue that it's genetic.

But this isn't Michael Portillo's Grand Tour style Continental journeys, staying in sumptuous imperialistic hotels, riding high-speed express trains wearing ridiculous fluorescent jackets. Instead here is Paul Merton in a flat cap and tweeds, visiting youth hostels and stations in such remote corners of the country that you have to stick your thumb out to stop the train. Once aboard you have to tell the guard where you plan to get off, otherwise the train will trundle straight through. For these are station request stops. There are apparently 152 of them in the UK.

Merton travels from Devon to Wales to Cumbria and Scotland on amusingly named lines (Looe Valley, Kyle) to amusingly named places (Luxulyan, Pontarddulais, Drigg, St Keyne Wishing Well Halt). A lot of the trains are no bigger than buses, but the last is the night sleeper to Fort William from London Euston, which deposits Merton in the middle of a vast isolated moor on the Scottish estate of Corrour.

Merton visits nuclear waste facilities, supermarket depots, espionage schools, wedding dress shops and china clay mines. He cheats at a spot of fell running. He walks through doors that lead nowhere. He overpays for a churn of Devon Ambrosia cream. He joins a male voice choir. He visits a station (Reddish South) which has only one train a week, running in only one direction. The service keeps going because it would be more expensive to petition Parliament to abolish it, but it has three loyal passengers, and three loyal trainspotters who wait to see them get off at Denton and get the bus home.

Paul Merton is always Paul Merton - jovial, witty, surreal, prepared to wear a funny outfit and point out the ridiculousness of life without being rude. It was a peaceful, enjoyable watch for a Sunday night, even if I was watching it about 30 years before my time.


West Highland Line going over the Glenfinnan Viaduct

We once spent a week in Scotland overlooking the West Highland Line to Mallaig. We stopped briefly at Arisaig, where Paul Merton tells us that the Special Operations Executive trained spies in the Second World War. I've also spent a beautiful week in Pembrokeshire, where Merton learns to operated a signalbox and meets the man (Dixe Wills) whose book Tiny Stations inspired the series. I've visited Devon and Cornwall many times. I've also spent a day exploring the bleak West Cumbrian coast, dominated by Sellafield and nuclear risk.

Aberfelin, Pembrokeshire

But I don't think I have ever had the pleasure of visiting a request stop station. Something to save for my retirement perhaps, assuming any of them are still open by then. Reddish South possibly.

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